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Book of the Week — Archidoxa

Archidoxa… wölff bücher, darin alle…
Paracelsus (1493-1541)
Munich: Adam Berg, 1570
Second Munich edition
R128.6 .P221 1570

The sixteenth century brought about a new perception of fields that had been dominated by Greek thought throughout the late Middle Ages. Medicine, for instance, was still very much guided by the teachings of Aristotle and Galen, a second century physician.

The work of Paracelsus is associated with changes in medicine that occurred in the sixteenth century.

Paracelsus was born near Zurich, Switzerland, one year after Columbus first landed in Hispaniola. His father was a physician. In 1502, after the death of his mother, Paracelsus’s family moved to a mining town, where his father combined his interests in chemistry and medicine with his patients’ experiences in the mines and smelting plants.

As a young man, Paracelsus traveled widely and possibly received a medical degree from the University of Ferrara. If he did, he was quick to disavow his academic education. He was appointed physician and professor of medicine at Basel in 1527, but was dismissed due to his vanity, arrogance, quick temper and generally cantankerous nature. He was kicked out of Basel for throwing a copy of Avicenna’s works into a bonfire. Worse than that, his patient, the noted publisher Johan Froben, died under his care.

Paracelsus did not disguise his contempt for universities and the physicians who emerged from them. He rejected the work of both Aristotle and Galen and attacked the academy for its insistent clinging to the ancients. He attempted to replace traditional medicine with a new system based upon observation and experiment. Paracelsus believed that the universe could be visible to every enlightened layperson and that it had to be understood independently of classical and biblical tradition.

Paracelsus (the man renamed himself this, taking Celsus, the name of an ancient physician and adding Para, or greater than, in front of it) believed that the chemical reactions of the universe as a whole were reproduced in human beings on a smaller scale. He viewed the human body as a small replica of the larger world around it. Disease, then, was not caused by the Galenic imbalance of the four humors, but was due to chemical influences that were localized in specific organs and could be treated by chemical remedies. Having rejected the humoral theory of Galenic medicine, Paracelsus also rejected the traditional Galenic remedies prepared from herbs, based on the work of Dioscorides.

Although others had used chemical remedies, Paracelsus differed from them in giving careful attention to specific dosage’s of his chemically prepared metals and minerals. Paracelsus favored an ancient Germanic folk principle that “like cures like.” The poison that caused a disease would be its cure if used in proper form and quantity. This use of toxic substances such as mercury and lead to cure patients was viewed by Paracelsus’ detractors as the practice of a “homicide Physician.”

A contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, Martin Luther, and Nicholas Copernicus, the reputation of Paracelsus as the founder of chemistry rests upon this work. Archidoxa links medieval alchemy and the rise of modern chemistry in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Although Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides developed procedures for distilling vegetable substances, this work is a landmark in the development of chemistry as a scientific subject. Paracelsus classified all chemical operations and materials known to him. He was particularly careful in documenting medicinal use of his chemical preparations, adding to the knowledge of compounds.

He invented laudanum, a tincture of opium, used in pharmacopeia into the twentieth century. And abused during the same time. Many became addicts of the substance. He invented ether.

He was a prolific writer, but most of his work was not printed until after his death. First published in a Latin translation in Cracow in 1569, six more editions of Archidoxa were printed in 1570. The text for this German edition follows his manuscript source more faithfully than did previous editions.


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